I was a school refuser – I wish I’d known about FE

8 Nov 2021, 6:00

Let’s hope today’s school refusers are told about college, because I wasn’t, writes Katy George

Every week when Monday rolled around, I’d feel a despairing knot in the pit of my stomach, only undone by the arrival of the next weekend.

For Friday evening and most of Saturday, I’d have a sense of relief – only to have the Sunday scaries hit me like a ton of bricks, followed by another week of desperate unhappiness.

Sometimes, my anxiety would come out as a tantrum, and I’d fight my way out of going to school.

Other times, it would come out as nausea, headaches or stomach troubles. On fewer occasions, I’d battle in, facing questions about why I had been off and pressure to catch up on missed work.

I can look back with compassion on the young girl who I now recognise was suffering from anxiety. But at the time, rather than being regarded as a mental health issue, it was treated as a behavioural problem.

My teachers wrung their hands at my naughtiness and defiance. I felt my parents – themselves teachers – were baffled and embarrassed by me, although I knew they loved me.

Constantly in conflict with the people around me, it seemed everyone thought I believed I was winning when I “got out of” going to school.

But I knew I was always, always losing. I was exhausted from the arguments, from the tension, from the permanent feeling of dread.

Because I didn’t like going to school, I thought of myself as not academic. This was in contrast with my elder sister, who was intelligent, well-liked and reliable. The A-level and university route was written in stone for her almost from day one, and she thrived.

I could never see this path for myself and envied how clear-cut her future seemed.

My parents scrimped and saved to send us to private school. The results-driven environment was ideal for my sister, and they hoped the smaller class sizes would help me to enjoy school more.

However, my time there only served to confirm my suspicions (whether accurate or not) that I was not academic, that I would never be capable of going to university, and that I would therefore be a failure – because university was the only road to success.

It was many years before I read an article about school refusal as a form and expression of anxiety, and everything clicked into place. By that time, I had left school at 17, having failed my AS levels miserably, and got a job in administration.

My fear had always been that I just didn’t have a work ethic – that I was inherently lazy – and that was why I had been unable to go to school.

In employment, however, I found the opposite to be true. Just as my sister thrived at university, I thrived in the workplace. The realisation that I hadn’t been a bad child, just an anxious one, was revelatory for me.

I never would have dreamed of taking a full-time college course other than A-levels

When I was leaving school, my perception was that apprenticeships and FE were only for the trade industries. I never would have dreamed of taking a full-time college course other than A-levels, because I quite literally didn’t know that the courses had any real value.

This perception was never corrected or challenged by my school.  

Now that I work in FE, I’m amazed by the wealth of opportunities available to young people. I can imagine the hope I could have had for myself had I been pointed towards FE provision.

In college, the students are treated and respected as the young adults they are, and the courses are flexible and varied. Apprenticeships offer the chance to learn and earn in a range of professions.

Government figures showed 770,000 persistent school absentees in 2020. This number has risen due to the pandemic, so it’s more crucial than ever not to let these students slip through the cracks.

Fortunately, mental health is so much better understood today than it was in the early 2000s (although there is still a long way to go) and perceptions of FE are slowly becoming more positive.

I’m therefore hopeful that school refusers are now treated with greater understanding and empathy, and advised fully about their options, including FE.

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    I do agree with you 100% Katy. I was a child of two head teachers in the Midlands who coached me through the 11 + to get to a Grammar School – but I was always in the very, very late 20s out of a class of 30. In the end I achieved five O Levels at two attempts, but it was made very clear to me (and my parents) that I was not University material. In the end, with the support of my Father`s ” contacts”, I was accepted on a Student Engineering five year Indentured Apprenticeship with a large Midland`s “metal basher ” – Rubery Owen in Darlaston. I achieved City & Guilds / 2x ONCs / 2x HNCs at the then Walsall Technical College (mid 1960s), and with a distinction in one HNC – converted it to a HND, and then a “Diploma in Technology” at the then College of Advanced Technology in Birmingham – now Aston University. If that was not a “Modern Apprenticeship” some 55 years ago !!”……. my excuse then was always = I was a late developer who enjoyed taking “oily and greasy” things apart and making them work again. An excellent – ” take me back ” article.
    Graham Briscoe. Weston super Mare.

  2. In 1998 I took the lead on a pilot programme in a Further Education college to create provision for those who were out of school in year 11.
    The programme was delivered in partnership with the Youth Service; we found that students who had previously recorded very poor attendance at school, engaged well with the programme and progressed into positive destinations.
    I agree with many of the views expressed in the article and often feel that schools are under pressure to focus on those who will follow an ‘academic’ route.
    The programme I refer to has developed and changed and continues to operate successfully, offering full-time education for year 11 students and providing a route into further and higher education.